IAVA CEO Butler Takes Up the Fight for a New Generation of Veterans
WASHINGTON – In many ways, Jeremy Butler is the perfect interview subject. It doesn’t take much to encourage him to talk about topics he’s passionate about.
And as the newly appointed CEO of Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), Butler is supremely concerned with the well-being of the nation’s newest generation of veterans, a population of former war fighters who may well be the most unique group of veterans in our history.
“I think the best word you can apply to our membership is, ‘diverse,'” said Butler, who took the helm of the organization last February.
“For instance, today, the percentage of women who make up the active duty and veteran community is the fastest growing cohort in either of those categories,” he said.
“At the same time, the nature of the combat mission has changed,” Butler continued. “Now we’re far more likely to have veterans who have been deployed multiple times in different combat zones, and in combat zones that have changed dramatically over the years.
“The conditions in Iraq today are far different from what they were in 2003, and the same holds true for Afghanistan,” he said. “And now you’ve got new hotspots like Syria and … different countries in Africa.”
“So I think when you take that all together — the breadth and depth of the combat missions we’re sending our service men and women on, coupled with the number of times we’re asking them to engage in all this — it adds up to a very unique generation of veterans,” he said.
Wanted to See The World
A native of Illinois, Butler wasn’t surrounded by a military tradition growing up. His father served in peacetime, a fact that instilled the son with a desire to serve his country, but the desire to join the military didn’t come into focus for the younger Butler until he studied abroad for a year while attending college.
“I knew I didn’t want a desk job, and wanted to see more of the world,” Butler said. “So I joined the U.S. Navy in 1999, and attended officer candidate school the following year.”
Butler soon found himself stationed aboard the USS David R. Ray, a destroyer deployed in a counter-narcotics operation off the coast of South America.
That mission was ongoing when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred, and Butler was subsequently transferred to Japan to serve on a frigate, the USS Gary, which was part of a strike group deployed during the subsequent invasion of Iraq.
He would serve in the Persian Gulf until the declared end of combat operations in Iraq, and eventually serve on the staff of the Naval Academy where he taught both in the classroom and on the water.
“After the Naval Academy, I left active duty and moved to Washington D.C. with my wife and worked as a defense contractor for a number of years,” he said.
But Butler described it as a time of being “in and out of uniform.”
As a member of the reserves, he was mobilized overseas and did assignments for the Pentagon.
He joined the staff of Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America in 2015.
Butler’s easy-going manner brings to mind the former NFL coach Tony Dungy, who was firm and resolute enough to coach the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl victory, but who to this day, as a television analyst expresses himself with empathy and self-deprecating humor.
“Am I rambling?” he asked at one point. Assured he wasn’t, he said, “Good. Because I can talk about the needs of veterans all day.”
Needs of Growing Number of Women Vets Must Be Addressed
Butler said some of the challenges facing the newest generation of veterans are “as old as time,” while others are unique.
“Among the things I think are unique to this generation is an increasing need for services for women veterans,” he said. “The reality is the VA was not designed to support women. I mean, the motto of the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington says the agency’s mission is ‘to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.’
“Now, I know people say, ‘It’s just a symbol.’ But I think it does set a tone. And the person I worry about is the woman veteran who may have dealt with sexual harassment or sexual assault in the military, who turns to the VA for help and then sees that statement as she walks in the door,” he said.
“Changing the motto and the culture its represents and the services that the VA provides to better meet the needs of women veterans is one of six big priorities,” he said.
Another big area of concern is getting appropriate treatment for veterans who have been exposed to toxic materials.
“Being exposed to burning toxic materials is nothing new for people who serve in our military, but I think in terms of the types of burning toxins our generation has been exposed to — and the duration of exposure — we are unique,” Butler said.
“And I say this from the perspective of an organization that’s still fighting for Vietnam veterans to get support for the effects of their exposure to Agent Orange.”
“What we’re pushing for right now is for the VA to do a comprehensive study of and provide medical support for those who have gotten sick from toxic exposures, whether it was from something like a burning munitions or from fire-fighting foam and contaminated water at military bases,” he said.
Membership Demands Action on Medical Cannabis, Rising Suicide Rate
Butler said one way Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America sets its priorities is through an annual survey of its roughly 400,000 members. In addition to the two already mentioned, other priorities include addressing the growing prevalence of suicide in the veteran community, defending veteran education benefits — the G.I. Bill — serving as a watchdog for an array of VA reforms, and increasing veterans’ ability to use medical cannabis.
“The latter priority is something relatively new in the veterans space, but now that more and more people are becoming aware of medical cannabis, you see veterans of all ages wanting access to it,” Butler explained.
He pointed out that while 33 states have legalized medicinal cannabis, and anecdotal evidence and some studies have shown medical cannabis has benefitted those suffering from chronic pain or PTSD, veterans are in a bind.
“It comes down to the fact the federal government still classifies cannabis as an illicit drug,” Butler said. “So even if a veteran lives in one of the states that have legalized its use, if they get their care through the VA, their doctors are not going to talk to them about it — and they’re certainly not going to prescribe it.”
When it came to the issue of suicides, both among active duty military and veterans, Butler said the situation is a “national crisis.”
“The number of suicides we see each day appears to be going up, not down, and while there has been an increased recognition of the issue, we’re really not making the progress we need to be making to reduce the stigma associated with suicidal feelings and seeking mental health care,” he said.
“At a minimum, we need to be having these conversations. We need to be talking about it,” he continued.”And we need to be having these conversations early, assuring people that it’s okay to admit to having a mental health issue and to ask for help.
“Then, of course, we need to provide the resources people need to turn to for help, because right now, it’s incredibly difficult for veterans to find treatment, let alone affordable and long-term treatment,” he said.
Given the urgency of the issues he mentioned, the conversation with Butler eventually turned to the current gridlock in Washington.
“It makes it very hard to address these,” Butler admitted.
“And the thing that’s incredibly frustrating is that I think everyone who is now focused on whatever the outrage of the day is, would probably also tell you they care very much about veterans and taking care of our military,” he said.
“There are some incredible bills in the House and the Senate that move the needle in the right direction on almost all of the issues I’ve mentioned, it’s just a matter of getting Congress, the administration and the VA to come together and move forward on them,” he said.
“In some cases, it’s a matter of committing funding. In others, it’s a matter of getting bills out of committee and onto the floor and hopefully to the president’s desk for his signature,” Butler said. “If they would just all come together and put action behind all their statements about supporting veterans, we really could get a lot done a lot faster than we are.”